Writer-director Bryan Bertino (The Strangers, Mockingbird) likes to keep things simple – his preferred premise is a couple with a credibly uneasy, raw relationship suddenly threatened by a horror movie monstrosity which forces them to work together, though rarely with the uplift that might be expected in simple genre fare. Here, as instanced by the blunt title, the set-up is so basic it might have done for a short film, though added value and conviction comes along with a remarkably committed performance from Zoe Kazan as a useless foul-up Mom who gets stranded in the middle of the woods with her sullen daughter when their car is sent into a spin by an already wounded wolf.
An economical set-up sequence establishes that Kathy (Kazan) has proved such a failure at looking after young Lizzie (Ella Ballentine) that the girl is opting to move out and live with her father. Throughout, there are small flashback scenes illustrating mother-daughter hostility as Kathy’s lifestyle choices, which start with smoking in the car and escalate to an unerring choice for rotten boyfriends, put an enormous strain on Lizzie’s tolerance. These scenes push the envelope on dysfunctional family ties – in one, mother and daughter shriek ‘fuck you’ at each other during an argument about Lizzie being driven to appear in a school play – but Bertino gives snapshots rather than overelaborating, just as he presents the horror when it comes without too much explanation. We’re never even sure what the monster – an impressively toothy and wet-furred man-in-a-suit creation (stuntman Chris Webb) – is, though it might conceivably be related to the werewolf or Bigfoot family.
Like The Strangers, this mostly plays in real time at a single location – a stretch of lonely wet road. It’s dark and wet, and when the emergency services show up they just become monster fodder as mother and daughter sort out their relationship between attacks and escape attempts. This year (maybe as the influence of The Babadook seeps through the genre), a surprising number of horror/suspense films have featured mothers fighting to protect children (cf: White Coffin, Under the Shadow, Monolith) and The Monster microfocuses on that theme – with Kazan (branching out from the kooky indie type film work she has specialised in since Ruby Sparks) impressively willing to play a thoroughly unsympathetic sort, as the spaced-out child-woman with red rat-tails and a kind of numbed resentful meanness, and then going through a hard road to some sort of redemption during the ordeal. In most of these films, the imperilled child is a token character – sometimes even a baby – but The Monster gives equal time to Ballentine as the deeply-hurt Lizzie, who also finds inner resources as the big beast keeps coming back for another assault.
It’s so simple, that some horror fans might resent its seeming lack of interest in going into the nature of its menace – but, like The Strangers, it’s also a very effective fright machine, with telling, spiky character touches. Scott Speedman, star of The Strangers, has a tiny cameo as Kathy’s latest douchebag b.f.
A24 will release THE MONSTER In Theaters and On Demand on November 11. The film is available now exclusively on DirecTV.